Sergey had a passionate interest in one of the great questions of biology: How can we define life? Dissatisfied with all earlier attempts at a definition, he was exploring the integration of physics, molecular biology and philosophy, and hoped for the chance to incorporate these ideas into a book length manuscript. In 2006, he had the chance to bring his life work to fruition, and he began to write his book.
After hearing Lada’s news, I have been thinking about Sergey’s struggle to carve out a life in science against immense odds, and how it contrasted with my own relatively easy path. Sergey was born November 15, 1963 in Kryvyi Rih, when Ukraine was still a member state of the USSR. After finishing high school, he studied medicine for three years at a local medical college, then traveled to Moscow State University for a graduate degree (M. Sc.) in biology and biochemistry, with an emphasis on brain specific proteins.
In 1987 Sergey met his future wife. Lada was studying music in Moldava and they both happened to be in Kryvui Rih during a brief summer vacation. Sergey and Lada could only spend a few days getting acquainted, but they continued to correspond by letters over the next year, and were married the following summer, on July 2, 1988. Lada wrote to me, “Sergey seemed at once to me very much not the usual person, very carried away by science and with very broad outlook. Also he very much was interested in music, painting. But the main thing for me - it is his kindness and nobleness.”
After Sergey completed his graduate work, the married couple returned to Kryvyi Rih in 1988, where he got a job performing clinical assays related to prenatal diagnostics. During the first four years of their marriage, an ancient Chinese curse seemed to come true: “May you live in interesting times!” The Soviet Union dissolved, the Berlin Wall was breached and then broken into small chunks of concrete to be hauled away, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was executed by firing squad, and the Velvet Revolution in Prague swept the Communists from power. Almost overnight, the world transformed from the Cold War culture to something else, still evolving today.
Although Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were undergoing chaotic political upheavals, this meant Sergey was finally free to travel. For the first time in his life he was able to experience other academic environments—he visited Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany, all the while enlarging his perspective on how science and human culture interacted. He again enrolled in a graduate program at Moscow State University, this time in the Department of Philosophy, and in 1995 was awarded the PhD degree for his dissertation “The Problem of Interrelation between Science and Ideology in Eugenics.”
Over the next ten years, Sergey continued to travel and even collected a second PhD. My impression from speaking to him about those years is that his home town, Kryvyi Rih, where he had a nominal title and minimal salary as Associate Professor for Philosophy in the Zaporozhje Institute of Economics and Information Technologies, was virtually a desert in terms of the intellectual or material resources he needed as a scholar. Kryvyi Rih is a steel town, sitting atop immense deposits of iron ore, and the steel industry does not map very well onto an academic life. To get anything done, and to find anyone to share his growing interest in the connections between science and philosophy, he was forced to find fellowships in western European countries, and to continue to collect degrees outside of Ukraine.
The title of his second dissertation in 2002 gives a sense of the direction he was taking in his work:
“Elaboration of Concept of the Immanent Wholeness as Theoretical Ground for Interdisciplinary Philosophy of Constructivism.”
Shortly after completing this PhD, Sergey realized that Germany and the German academic culture were likely to be a fruitful environment for his research. There seems to be a set of dominant philosophical genes embedded in the DNA of the German people. No other country can claim a list of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Haeckel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. With philosophy now dominating his thought processes, Sergey found a welcoming home at the Hanse Institute for Advanced Study, Delmenhorst. In cooperation with Gerhard Roth, (Rector of the Institute and Professor at the University of Bremen) and Helmut Schwegler (Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Bremen) he undertook a project entitled “Study of Cognitive Forms of Autopoiesis and Their Interrelation with the Other Autopoietic Forms of Activity in Living Systems.”
I will quote here from his research statement related to the time he spent in Delmenhorst:
“Ego-phenomenology, which we introspectively refer to as “I” or Self, is not merely an epiphenomenon of consciousness. The conscious ego (self-consciousness) is one of the manifestations of the organizational (self-organizational) principle of living beings. In its antientropic and homeostatic activity every living being possesses a quality of immanent autonomy, which metaphorically can be designated as its thermodynamic, homeostatic and autopoietic ego. This immanent autonomy presents organizational roots of the mental and other forms of Self.”
Sergey first contacted me through Gerhard Roth, whom I met in 2002 at a conference in Cortona, Italy. We were both speakers, Gerhard on how consciousness arises in certain regions of the brain, and I discussing the origin of life. Afterwards I sent Gerhard a manuscript related to a mathematical definition of complexity of the nervous system, which he showed to Sergey while he was at the Hanse Institute. Sergey wrote to me, noting our mutual interest in biocomplexity and asking whether I could sponsor his visit if he was successful in competing for a Fulbright Fellowship.
Well, I thought, why not? Several Russian post-docs had come through my lab over the years, and my mother’s parents, Stefan and Olga Meschenko, were of Russian-Ukrainian ancestry. I felt a certain kinship, so we began the application process. A year later Sergey had some good news. He had been awarded a fellowship and was planning how to spend his time in Santa Cruz! But now I was faced with a bit of a conundrum. His proposal to the Fulbright foundation had the title “Interdisciplinary Discourse of Life Sciences: Investigation of Biocomplexity and Cross-Cultural Analysis of Teaching of the Principles of Life Sciences.” How could my research group, dedicated to experimental laboratory science, accommodate a philosopher interested in immanent wholeness? Well, I thought, our campus has a philosophy department, and at the time I was teaching a bioethics course with Ellen Suckiel, the chair of the department. Maybe Sergey could fit in, even though he would not be working in the laboratory.
Sergey arrived in June, 2005 and found an inexpensive one room studio in nearby Aptos. Lada followed a few months later. Over the next ten months, I would see Sergey on a weekly basis to discuss his ideas and how they might be integrated into the research I was doing with funding from the NASA Astrobiology program, which involved molecular self-assembly processes related to the origin of life. During this time, Sergey’s thought processes gradually came to a sharp focus on the topic that would become his book. I will quote from what he wrote about this development:
“To my great surprise I have found a proper formal domain, namely the NASA Astrobiology Program, where my interdisciplinary efforts on the definition of life obtained an academic form. It could hardly happen (and never happened) in the traditional frames of biology or Life Sciences, where life-phenomenology is taken as a matter of fact. Scientists there just work with living stuff being satisfied with several “working definitions” at hand. Astrobiology Program has as its prior aim looking for living phenomena in the extraterrestrial universe. Thus, the question “What is life?” seems to be crucial. Two other question are in close relation: a) How did life emerge on the Earth? and b) Can artificial living systems be produced in the laboratory?”
Fulbright Fellows are encouraged to travel and give seminars at other campuses, so I introduced Sergey to my colleagues in the western US who shared our interest in the origin of life. Sergey visited Ken Nealson at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Jack Farmer at Arizona State University, Woody Sullivan at the University of Washington, and Radu Popa at Portland State University, presenting his ideas in lectures at each campus. By all accounts, they were well-received, and when his visit came to an end it is fair to say that he had forced us to consider how frail and simplistic our working definition of life really was.
Sergey returned home to the Ukraine in 2006, only to face a very different climate. He wrote to me, expressing concern about how isolated he was. There was one bit of happy news, that he and Lada became parents with the birth of Misha, a baby boy.
Sergey very much wanted to return to an academic environment that would appreciate his work in philosophy, and pinned his hopes on writing a book to establish his scholarly credentials. It seemed best to get a capsule version of his ideas out first, so he wrote a paper which was published in Astrobiology, May 2009. In it, he described why he, as a philosopher and logician, found current definitions of life lacking, and pointed the way toward his vision of defining life in terms of cyclic processes. Each cycle, driven by a flux of energy and nutrients through a pattern defined by genetic information, became embedded in ever more complex cycles as life evolved. Life began as protocellular compartments capable of capturing energy and nutrients to grow and reproduce, and over three billion years has now emerged as an immensely complex biosphere in which those cycles occur within cells, organisms and finally ecosystems of interacting microbial, plant and animal populations. Reading his paper, I finally understood what Sergey meant by immanent wholeness.
In order to write his book, Sergey, Lada and Misha returned to Delmenhorst, generously supported by a second fellowship from the Hanse Institute. In six months he completed much of the rough draft manuscript and had two finished chapters ready to present to a publisher. But then his illness became overwhelming, and Sergey died in late October, 2009, at age 46. Lada and Misha returned home to Ukraine, where she is resuming her career as a music teacher. And now we are trying to decide what to do with a book nearly written, representing the masterpiece of a friend and scholar who dedicated himself to answering a question central to all of biology: What is life?